Commercial crabbers out of the Cortez fishing village began putting out their traps last week in preparation for the start of the stone crab harvest on Thursday. The season runs through May 2.
But seemingly, like everything else in the year 2020, there was a complication: Hurricane Delta was roiling the Gulf of Mexico. Crabbers had to wait until the weather cleared to place their traps.
The silver lining was that they would be able to crab locally. A few years ago they had to push as far north as Tarpon Springs to avoid the red tide that plagued the coast of Manatee County.
One of the problems the commercial fishing industry faces this year is that higher-end product, like stone crab and grouper, might not bring the same prices as in the past. Lower priced seafood continues to sell well.
The worldwide economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has dried up some international markets, said Karen Bell of A.P. Bell Fish Company, 4600 124th St. W.
Roe mullet, for example, while not in the same class as caviar, is still seen as a luxury food product and traditional customers are opting for less pricey fare.
Bell suspects that stone crab may fetch a lower price this season — as was the case with Florida lobster — because many households are holding onto their dollars during the downturn.
Products like grouper, which often went to restaurants in the past, are now being sold in retail markets and groceries, and at a lower price.
“People are being a little tighter with their money,” she said.
Brian Ibasfalean, production manager for A.P. Bell Fish Company, said Cortez commercial fishermen are staying busy, but no one knows what the pandemic will do to the market.
Nathan Meschelle, 29, has been working in the commercial fishing business since he was a student at Bayshore High School.
Today, he owns and operates the “High Roller,” catching thread herring, roe mullet, and lady fish. He also has stone crab boxes in Gulf waters.
On Tuesday, he unloaded 10,000 pounds of thread herring that will be used as bait.
“We catch the bait and the grouper boats take our bait and put it on their hooks,” Meschelle said. “We are sort of the bottom of the food chain. I think things won’t be off the charts or anything but we’re going to make it. We always do.”
Bell said she hopes for a good season and adds: “honestly, we’re happy just to be working.”
State changes stone crab rules
Florida’s stone crab fishery has experienced a long-term decline in harvest, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in announcing several rule changes this year.
The minimum claw size limit will be 2 7/8 inches, a one-eight inch increase.
Possession of whole stone crabs on the water will be limited to two checker boxes, each up to 3 feet by 2 feet by 2 feet or a total volume of 24 cubic feet. Checker boxes are used to hold crabs onboard a vessel before they are measured and legal-sized claws are removed.
All plastic and wood stone crab traps will need to be outfitted with a 2 3/16-inch escape ring before the 2023/2024 season.
Recreational harvesters who are age 16 and older and fish with traps are required to complete an online, no-cost recreational stone crab trap registration and place their registration number on their traps before using them.
To register, visit GoOutdoorsFlorida.com, sign in, click the blue “Purchase a License” button, scroll down to the “Saltwater Permits” section, and select “Recreational Stone Crab Trap Registration.”
Upon completion, each person will receive unique trap registration numbers that must be included on each trap along with the owner’s full name and address. This information must be legible and must be permanently attached to each trap.
Care should be taken when removing the claws so as to not permanently injure the crab.
Claws may not be taken from egg-bearing stone crabs. Stone crabs may not be harvested with any device that can puncture, crush or injure a crab’s body. Examples of devices that can cause this kind of damage include spears and hooks.
Recreational harvesters may take a daily bag limit of one gallon of claws per person or two gallons per vessel, whichever is less, and may use up to five stone crab traps per person.
Traps that are not being fished should be removed from the water to avoid ghost fishing, a process in which marine species get caught in the trap for extended periods of time and are not harvested.
Stone crab regulations are the same in state and federal waters.
For more information on harvesting stone crabs for recreation, trap specifications, commercial stone crab regulations and licensing information, go online to MyFWC.com/Marine.
Keep up to date with saltwater and freshwater fishing regulations on your phone by downloading the Fish Rules app in the App Store or Google Play. Learn more at FishRulesApp.com.